I think when most people think of fish, other than as a food source, they think of them an animal that is nice to watch, but hard to interact with. I suppose that is to be expected as most people don’t go underwater.
But divers know that groupers can often behave quite similar to dogs underwater. They like to be scratched under the chin, will take to moderate ‘cuddling’, and will even follow you around in a playful manner. There are quite a few dive masters that have developed special relationships with many of these fish as they bring people to the same sites over and over.
The fish pictured here are Nassau Groupers, which have had their population decline by more than 60% over the last 30 years due to overfishing. That places them in endangered status on the IUCN Red List and believed to be still declining. They are currently a candidate for listing in the US Endangered Species Act. They were placed as a candidate in 2012, and perhaps will be reviewed yet this year if the listing will take place.
There has been a complete fishing ban on these groupers in US Federal Waters since 1990. Enforcement of restrictions on fishing in other regions such as the Bahamas and Mexico is a concern. Overfishing isn’t their only threat – there are significant impacts due to habitat losses. From the IUCN site:
Suitable habitat for the Nassau grouper is also likely to be in decline. Of the estimated 20,000 km² of coral reef in the Caribbean, 29% is estimated to be under high risk of degradation from human activities, 32% is at medium risk and 39% is at low risk (Bryantet al. 1998). Although the Nassau grouper also inhabits rocky reefs, these are unlikely to be able to compensate for the loss of quality coral reef habitat.
I believe change of perception can be key in how any of us interacts with another species and our regard for them. I find it hard to believe anyone could pet, interact, and play with one of these guys underwater and then regard them as nothing but dinner. Being able to interact with these fish underwater is certainly a privilege experienced by a limited subset of the population. I wish there were a way to bring that to so many others other than writing about it, and of course, Nassau Grouper are only one of the many that have a need here.
If you have read this, perhaps you will have different insight the next time you walk into a restaurant and see grouper on the menu. Regulations are only one end of protecting a species, public knowledge and self enforcement is another end.